Reading Paul Again…For the First Time

This will be a odd blog post.  It’s just passages of scripture.

I recently returned from Greece and Turkey with a group of 50 of my new closest friends from Chapelwood.  We followed in the footsteps of Paul and I wanted to read all of Paul’s letters again several times – to see if I noticed anything new in light of the trip.

I have to admit the divisions of the world (and the church) do color my readings.  What I discovered reading Paul again was a friend and co-laborer.  Paul is a mentor.   He is doing exactly what I am doing…fighting every day to share the Gospel and keep the followers of Jesus together so they can effectively change the world.  In every letter, Paul is trying to manage the divisions in his churches.  Paul is strict with those who are dividing the church.  But if you read all of them together, you see the larger themes: he encourages them to love, be kind, forgive, bear with weaker members.  Paul is trying to keep the church together so they can be a visible testimony to the power of Christ in the world.

I found it transforming.  I hope you will as well.  And if you feel going to Greece will help you in your readings, let me know! 😉

I urge you, brothers and sisters, to keep an eye on those who cause dissensions and offenses, in opposition to the teaching that you have learned; avoid them.  For such people do not serve our Lord Christ, but their own appetites…

– Romans 16:17-18

Now, I appeal to you, brothers and sisters, by the name of our Lord Jesus Christ, that all of you be in agreement and that there be no divisions among you, but that you be united in the same mind and the same purpose…Has Christ been divided?

– 1 Corinthians 1:10, 13a

So if anyone is in Christ, there is a new creation: everything old has passed away; see, everything has become new!  All this is from God, who reconciled us to himself through Christ, and has given us the ministry of reconciliation; that is, in Christ God was reconciling the world to himself, not counting their trespasses against them, and entrusting the message of reconciliation to us.  So, we are ambassadors for Christ…

– 2 Corinthians 5:17-20a

For you were called to freedom, brothers and sisters; only do not use your freedom as an opportunity for self-indulgence, but through love become slaves to one another.  For the whole law is summed up in a single commandment, “You shall love your neighbor as yourself.”  If, however, you bite and devour one another, take care that you are not consumed by one another.

– Galatians 5;13-15

I encourage you to live as people worthy of the call you received from God. Conduct yourselves with all humility, gentleness, and patience. Accept each other with love, and make an effort to preserve the unity of the Spirit with the peace that ties you together. You are one body and one spirit, just as God also called you in one hope. There is one Lord, one faith, one baptism, and one God and Father of all, who is over all, through all, and in all.

– Ephesians 4:1-6

If then there is any encouragement in Christ, any consolation from love, any sharing in the Spirit, any compassion and sympathy, make my joy complete: be of the same mind, having the same love, being in full accord and of one mind.  Do nothing from selfish ambition or conceit, but in humility regard others as better than yourselves.  Let each of you look not to your own interests, but to the interests of others.  Let the same mind be in you that was in Christ Jesus…

– Philippians 2:1-5

Put to death, therefore, whatever in your is earthly: fornication, impurity, passion, evil desire, and greed (which is idolatry).  On account of these the wrath of God is coming on those who are disobedient.  These are the ways you once followed when you were living that life.  But now you must get rid of all such things – anger, wrath, malice, slander, and abusive language from your mouth.  Do not lie to one another, seeing that you have stripped off the old self with its practices and have clothed yourselves with the new self, which is being renewed in the knowledge according to the image of its creator.  In that renewal there is no longer Greek or Jew, circumcised or uncircumcised, barbarian, Scythian, slave and free; but Christ is all and in all!

– Colossians 3:5-11

Now concerning love of the brothers and sisters, you do not need to have anyone write to you, for you yourselves have been taught by God to love one another; and indeed you do love all the brothers and sisters throughout Macedonia.  But we urge you, beloved, to do so more and more, to aspire to live quietly, to mind your own affairs, and to work with your hands, as we directed you, so that you may behave properly toward outsiders and be dependent on no one.

– 1 Thessalonians 4:9-12

Take note of those who do not obey what we say in this letter; have nothing to do with them, so they they may be ashamed.  Do not regard them as enemies, but warn them as believers.

– 2 Thessalonians 3:14-15

Let no one despise your youth, but set the believers an example in speech and conduct, in love, in faith, in purity.

– 1 Timothy 4:12

Remind them of this, and warn them before God that they are to avoid wrangling over words, which does no good but only ruins those who are listening.  Do your best to present yourself to God as one approved by him, a worker who has no need to be ashamed, rightly explaining the word of truth.  Avoid profane chatter, for it will lead people into more and more impiety, and their talk will spread like gangrene…have nothing to to do with stupid and senseless controversies; you know that they breed quarrels.  And the Lord’s servant must not be quarrelsome but kindly to everyone, and apt teacher, patient, correcting opponents with gentleness,  God may perhaps grant that they will depend and come to know the truth…

– 2 Timothy 2:14-17a, 23-25

Remind them to be subject to the rulers and authorities, to be obedient, to be ready for every good work, to speak evil of no one, to avoid quarreling, to be gentle, and to show every courtesy to everyone.  For we ourselves were once foolish, disobedient, led astray, slaves to various passions and pleasures, passing our days in malice and envy, desipicable, hating one another.  But when the goodness and loving kindness of God our Savior appeared, he saved us, not because of any works of righteousness that we had done, but according to his mercy, through the water of rebirth and the renewal of the Holy Spirit…I desire that you insist on these things, so that those who have come to believe in God may be careful to devote themselves to good works; these things are excellent and profitable to everyone.  But avoid stupid controversies, genealogies, dissensions, and quarrels about the law, for they are unprofitable and worthless.  After a first and second admonition, have nothing more to do with anyone who causes divisions since you know that such a person is perverted and sinful, being self-condemned.

– Titus 3:1-11

So if you consider me your partner, welcome him as you would welcome me.  If he has wronged you in any way, or owes you anything, charge that to my account.  I, Paul, am writing this with my own hand: I will repay it.

– Philemon 17-19

Good News to Bad Christians

10 Now I appeal to you, brothers and sisters, by the name of our Lord Jesus Christ, that all of you be in agreement and that there be no divisions among you, but that you be united in the same mind and the same purpose. 11 For it has been reported to me by Chloe’s people that there are quarrels among you, my brothers and sisters. 12 What I mean is that each of you says, “I belong to Paul,” or “I belong to Apollos,” or “I belong to Cephas,” or “I belong to Christ.” 13 Has Christ been divided? Was Paul crucified for you? Or were you baptized in the name of Paul? 14 I thank God that I baptized none of you except Crispus and Gaius, 15 so that no one can say that you were baptized in my name. 16 (I did baptize also the household of Stephanas; beyond that, I do not know whether I baptized anyone else.) 17 For Christ did not send me to baptize but to proclaim the gospel, and not with eloquent wisdom, so that the cross of Christ might not be emptied of its power.

 –1 Corinthians 1:10-17

When I came to you, brothers and sisters, I did not come proclaiming the mystery of God to you in lofty words or wisdom. For I decided to know nothing among you except Jesus Christ, and him crucified. And I came to you in weakness and in fear and in much trembling. My speech and my proclamation were not with plausible words of wisdom, but with a demonstration of the Spirit and of power, so that your faith might rest not on human wisdom but on the power of God.

 –1 Corinthians 1:1-5

It seems that our country is divided over everything.  I mean, we can’t even have a little fun when IHOP changes its name to IHOb just to draw attention to itself.  We all want to claim the moral high ground based on the values that are important to us.  For some, obeying law and respecting authority is the highest value.  For others, justice and mercy are the highest values.  And then there are many others who find themselves on a spectrum between multiple other values that include the two I listed already.  We don’t think the same way.  But we must acknowledge that we are influenced by powerful values and the leaders who embody those values.

I find it fascinating how the Apostle Paul dealt with a church that struggled with many divisions.  The church in Corinth was his most diverse community and most divided church.  There were many social, political, and economic divisions within the church alone (Pauline scholar Douglas Campbell points to 15 divisions Paul addresses in his letters).  How did the people of Corinth deal with their problems?  They separated into “factions” based on partisan issues (partisan means strong supporter of a party, cause, or person).  Each of these factions claimed their own ‘leaders’ – they co-opted Paul, Apollos, Cephas (Peter) and even Jesus!  Christians were slandering and quarrelling.  Paul addressed this by sending good news to bad Christians in 1 Corinthians.  Paul starts his letter by writing, “let there be no divisions among you, but be united in the same mind and the same purpose…it has been reported there are quarrels among you…some say “I belong to Paul” or “I belong to Apollos” or “I belong to Cephas” or “I belong to Christ””.

I love how Paul does this.  He starts with himself as the lowest “claimed faction” leader and moves up to Christ.  After all, if your are in a faction that claims Cephas (Peter) or Christ you have way more authority than Paul or Apollos!  But Paul calls this for what it is: if you think you have the moral high ground just because you claim Christ and turn him into a leader of your faction, you are sadly mistaken.  You think that makes you right?  Christ can not be divided.  Christ is “faction-less”.

If we want to follow Christ, we must follow Christ.  You can’t follow another faction leader or even their ideals.  You can’t divide Christ and claim him for your faction.  You can’t slander the leaders of other factions.  You can’t slander or quarrel with members of a different faction.  If you are followers of Christ, you must love one another in the midst of your differences and you must stop tearing each other down.  This is Paul’s central lesson in 1 Corinthians.  “You have divisions…okay; but what are those divisions rooted in?  Your faction’s belief system?  That is not what I taught you.”  Christ is not a faction and he is our primary leader.  Christ gets the highest allegiance over every other leader.  No one gets more loyalty than Christ…not Paul, not Apollos, not Cephas, and not any other earthly leader.  Only Christ…and we don’t get to divide Christ’s teachings into what we like and the what we don’t like.  We must follow his teachings and embody his actions.  We must remind ourselves of the greatest commandment he gave us and lay the rest down at his feet.

  • First reflection: How much of our quarrel, slander, emotional frustration, division, etc. is rooted in one of our factions?  Can we acknowledge that we are part of a faction that influences us more than Jesus’ teachings? (nationalism, political party, ideology, denominational, etc.). These are questions we can only answer for ourselves if we hope to be transformed by Christ.  It starts with me.

The second thought has to do with HOW we deal with our divisions.  Have you noticed how frustrating it becomes engaging in discussions trying to outdo one another with facts, resources, words, definitions, history, and laws?  You say something, I counter with another fact, you counter back, I counter back…it escalates and escalates and all we are left with is bitterness and frustration.  We try to out enlighten one another…as if some report or study or quote will convert the person we disagree with.  We post a new article from our favorite faction-news-outlet and…BOOM!  (Mic drop…walk off stage).  It doesn’t work that way.  Why?  Because as long as we have loyalty to a faction, whatever that faction is, we will remain loyal.  Our worldview will not be changed by any human argument against it as long as our allegiance is locked in.  Albert Einstein once wrote, “…a new type of thinking is essential if mankind is to survive and move toward higher levels.”  His quote evolved into, “we cannot solve our problems with the same thinking we used when we created them.”  Use all the articles and news reports you want from your faction outlets.  Those who disagree with you will discount them before they even read them.  There will be no boom.  There will be no mic drop.  Just more frustration and anger.

This is what Paul addresses to the Corinthians.  He doesn’t use “words” to argue divisions or try to solve the problem.  Words won’t work.  Paul knows the same words that created the problems can’t solve the problems.  Paul wrote, “when I came to you, I did not come proclaiming the mystery of God to you in lofty words or wisdom…I decided to know nothing but Christ and him crucified…my speech and proclamation were not in plausible words of wisdom but with a demonstration of the Spirit and of power that your faith might not rest on human wisdom but on the power of God.”  Paul realized he had to shine a light on the demonstration of the Spirit, not words.  He reminds them that he didn’t proclaim Christ with words but with the power of God.  Corinthians were brilliant, cosmopolitan people…words alone would not convert them.  Paul did not depend upon the wisdom of the “rulers of the age” (whether philosophical or political), instead he pointed to the things taught to by the Spirit…spiritual things modeled in loving action…things embodied by the life and teachings of Christ, revealed by the power of God.

  • Second reflection:  In what ways do we depend on words, teachings, eloquent rebuttals, news stories, research data, etc. to try to convince other factions they are wrong?  Are we willing to admit that we look for information and listen to the voices of our own “factions”?  Can we see the fallacy of depending on the wisdom of the rulers of the world to try to change other peoples views?  How do Paul’s words challenge those of us struggling with divisions in our own country and our churches?  What would it look like to discuss our differences in a new ways that could reveal the power of God and build unity?

Let me close with some honest admission paraphrasing Paul.  Here is a trustworthy saying: Christ Jesus came into the world to save sinners – of whom I am the worst.  When I am a bad Christian, my struggle is being a part of the Christ faction.  I have to constantly test my loyalties to make sure I haven’t made Christ the co-opted, claimed leader of my own faction.  All Christians, good and bad, should wrestle with this.  Paul wrote these words to me…but I thought I’d share them with you:

“Do not deceive yourselves.  If you think that you are wise in this age, you should become fools so that you may become wise.  For the wisdom of the world is foolishness to God…so let no one boast of human leaders…all belong to you, and you belong to Christ, and Christ belongs to God.”  

— 1 Corinthians 3:18-23

Sutherland Springs and Springs of the Water of Life

“for the Lamb at the center of the throne will be their shepherd,
    and he will guide them to springs of the water of life,
and God will wipe away every tear from their eyes.” -Revelation 7:17

Little did I know as we worshiped on November 5 that a tragedy was befalling fellow saints of God in Sutherland Springs, Texas.  At Chapelwood UMC in Houston, we were gathering to worship God and to remember the saints who died this past year.  First Baptist in Sutherland Springs was worshiping as well.  This should have been a Sunday where the saints – living and dead – are united with one song of praise to the Lamb on the throne.  Methodists and Baptists, Protestants and Catholics – the untold number of saints gathered around the throne singing, “Amen! Blessing and glory and wisdom and thanksgiving and honor and power and might be to our God forever and ever! Amen.” (Revelation 7:12)

I have no words to speak or write that can help make sense of this awful tragedy.  Watching the news doesn’t help at all.  “It is a gun issue.”  “It is a mental health issue.”  “It is a sin issue.”  My friends, evil never limits the places and spaces where it works.  Evil will do anything it can to destroy life – to kill, steal, and destroy.  The devil is at work and will always seek to introduce fear and doubt into the lives of people of faith.  Evil will even work after the tragedy as we try to find some easy solution or explanation.  It’s not easy.  It never has been.

I have received quite a few emails asking ‘why’?  I don’t have the answer.  I took theology, psychology, and ethics in seminary and can articulate evil, sin, pain and suffering.  But the theology doesn’t do much for me in this moment.  I am more connected to the laments in the Psalms and the hoped for future in Revelation.  It’s not that I am avoiding anything.  It’s just that this seems to happen every week and words begin to echo into meaninglessness.  I need words to help me name the pain.

Like in Psalm 6, “I am weary with my moaning; every night I flood my bed with tears; I drench my couch with my weeping.  My eyes waste away because of grief; they grow weak because of all my foes.  Depart from me, all you workers of evil, for the Lord has heard the sound of my weeping.  The Lord has heard my supplication; the Lord accepts my prayer.  All my enemies shall be ashamed and struck with terror; they shall turn back, and in a moment be put to shame.”

And Psalm 13, “How long, O Lord?  Will you forget me forever?  How long will you hide your face from me?  How long must I bear pain in my soul, and have sorrow in my heart all day long?  How long shall my enemy be exalted over me?  Consider and answer me, O Lord!  Give light to my eyes, or I will sleep the sleep of death, and my enemy will say, “I have prevailed”; my foes will rejoice because I am shaken.  But I trusted in your steadfast love; my heart shall rejoice in your salvation.  I will sing to the Lord because he has dealt bountifully with me.”

So, right now and am in sackcloth and ashes.  I am weeping inside and out.

But there is something we can do.  Christians will need to be ready to step up our discipleship if we want to see our world changed.  We must lament…and they we must step forward.  We must give up time to disciple and be discipled.  We must give time to teach our teens and children.  We must open the pathways of the Holy Spirit to work not just in us, but to expand the influence of Christ in the world.

Join me as we weep and cry out.  Then join me as we step forward in faith to change the world.

 

Love and Hate

Luke 2:25-35

25Now there was a man in Jerusalem whose name was Simeon; this man was righteous and devout, looking forward to the consolation of Israel, and the Holy Spirit rested on him. 26It had been revealed to him by the Holy Spirit that he would not see death before he had seen the Lord’s Messiah. 27Guided by the Spirit, Simeon came into the temple; and when the parents brought in the child Jesus, to do for him what was customary under the law, 28Simeon took him in his arms and praised God, saying, 29“Master, now you are dismissing your servant in peace, according to your word; 30for my eyes have seen your salvation, 31which you have prepared in the presence of all peoples, 32a light for revelation to the Gentiles and for glory to your people Israel.” 33And the child’s father and mother were amazed at what was being said about him. 34Then Simeon blessed them and said to his mother Mary, “This child is destined for the falling and the rising of many in Israel, and to be a sign that will be opposed 35so that the inner thoughts of many will be revealed—and a sword will pierce your own soul too.”

Love and hate are intimately linked within the human brain, according to a study by Professor Semir Zeki of University College London. Zeki studied the brains of people who profess deep hatred towards a person and deep love and here is what he discovered.  When people looked at the images of those they hated, it involved specific areas in the sub-cortex of the brain. One area they already knew was connected to contempt and disgust. But they found these same areas of the brain were involved in deep feelings of love. Zeki proposes that this may be connected to the preparation of aggression that may come when you feel someone you love is threatened.  While love and hate are found to be at work in the same area of the brain, there is one interesting difference. Zeki and his research team found that the areas of the brain associated with judgment and reasoning become deactivated during love, whereas very little of the area is deactivated in hate.

Zeki concludes with this hypothesis…love seems to be less critical and less judgmental toward those loved. Hate is more judgmental, more critical, and more calculating…seeking ways to injure, harm, or exact revenge. The other interesting find? Hate could be objectively quantified in the studies. Love could not. There was no way to objectively quantify love.

Zeki could have saved a lot of time if he had just read the New Testament…

Christmas is the time of year when we celebrate the coming of the fullness of love to the world. For God so loved the world, that He gave His only begotten Son… Christmas is the time we celebrate when love came down from heaven. And this is a season of love. There is something warm and cozy about Christmas. Families gather, meals are shared, we reach out to those who are not with us by phone and Christmas cards.

But as we explore the great paradoxes of Christmas, this week we focus on the second Sunday of Advent’s theme…love. We know that the world Jesus came into was not only a world of love. Just as in Jesus day, we are surrounded by the paradox of a world where God is pouring out His love into a world filled with hate.

The Magi search for the child to pay him homage as a power-hungry king tries desparately to keep power by slaughtering innocent young children.  The angels announce the birth of the Savior to a poor band of shepherds.  Joseph and Mary receive news of the miraculous birth, but their experience is not exactly glorious.  Our world is not different. We see the paradoxes all around us.  Love comes in the midst of a world of hate.  People killing innocent people and calling it faithfulness. People mistrusting those around them and those in authority. We need love more than ever in a world filled with hate.

In today’s passage, we see Joseph and Mary bringing Jesus to the temple as was the custom. Simeon was a righteous and faithful man and very old. God told him he would not die until he laid eyes on the Savior of the world. As Jesus is brought into the temple, Simeon is drawn in and when he lays his eyes on the child, he rejoices! He says, “Master, now you are dismissing your servant in peace, according to your word; for my eyes have seen your salvation, which you have prepared in the presence of all peoples, a light for revelation to the Gentiles and for glory to your people Israel.”  Simeon sees the light of salvation for all people, including the Gentiles. Love has come down.

IF we ended there, that would be enough. But the Bible points us to another paradox…Simeon continues…“This child is destined for the falling and the rising of many in Israel, and to be a sign that will be opposed so that the inner thoughts of many will be revealed—and a sword will pierce your own soul too.”

We see this bitter prophecy played out in the life of Jesus as he confronts the lives and motives of so many.  He called us to examine our inner thoughts as well.  In John 3:19 Jesus says, “And this is the judgment, that the light has come into the world, and people loved darkness rather than light because their deeds were evil.  For all who do evil hate the light and do not come to the light, so that their deeds may not be exposed.  But those who do what is true come to the light, so that it may be clearly seen that their deeds have been done in God.”

Jesus was and is the One who reveals our inner thoughts and calls us to choose light and love over darkness and hate.  We are confronted with this Sign everyday.

The good news is that love has come into the world. But that love will call for a decision from the world. A decision to love in the light…or hate in the darkness.

Hopes and Fears…

Matthew 2:16-18

When Herod saw that he had been tricked by the wise men, he was infuriated, and he sent and killed all the children in and around Bethlehem who were two years old or under, according to the time that he had learned from the wise men.  Then was fulfilled what had been spoken through the prophet Jeremiah:  “A voice was heard in Ramah, wailing and loud lamentation, Rachel weeping for her children; she refused to be consoled, because they are no more.”

nativity

Fisher Price Nativity

My kids always loved playing with the Fisher Price nativity set under our Christmas tree.  It was a good way for our kids to understand the story while being able to handle the characters without fear of them showing up broken around the house.  The wise men in the set were always my favorites.  Not only did they show the diversity of the “peoples of the world”, but they all had these sweet smiles on their faces.  They reflected the story of the wise men I grew up hearing about…visiting the home of Jesus with gifts of frankincense, gold and myrrh.

But just like Christmas cards, the nativity sets don’t tell the whole story…they only reflect the glorious aspects of the birth of Christ.  This isn’t a bad thing, but it leads us to forget the paradox inherent in the season.  The story of the wise men is coupled with the killing of innocent children by Herod in Matthew 2.  Why would Matthew include such graphic and atrocious imagery?  Why do we never really hear or talk about that part of the story?

This is heavy stuff and Christmas is not supposed to be a heavy time.  We work hard at creating ‘winter wonderlands’ and hap-, happiest times of the year for our family, friends and even for ourselves.  But we must remember that Christmas is a season of paradox.  Christmas is a season self-contradiction that expresses the truth that in God comes into a world that is violent, broken, and in desperate need of salvation.  Matthew doesn’t hide this.  Matthew tells the gritty and disturbing parts of the story.  Matthew’s version of the Christmas story isn’t as far fetched as we may like to think.

Emmanuel, God with us, did not just draw near to us in all the good parts of our lives.  God took on our lot and our life – all of it.  He entered into a world of fear, dread and atrocity.  And He continues to enter those parts of our lives.  The good news of the Gospel is this…we do not face this scary world alone.  God is with us.  Even in the midst of a world that is filled with heartache.

Questions for Reflection:

  • Read Matthew 2:1-18 again.  How often have you heard verses 16-18 shared during the Christmas season?  Why do you think we like to steer away from this part of the story?
  • Think about the world we live in now.  What ‘Herods’ do you see around us?  Are there leaders or powers that seek to protect their power?
  • Think about your own life this Christmas season.  Do you find it difficult to be happy in a season that is supposed to be filled with happiness?  Why?
  • Take some time to think about the real, painful aspects of your life.  How does Christ’s birth in a real, gritty, difficult world give you hope and comfort?  Think of ways Christ can be born in your own difficulty and share that with a friend over coffee or lunch.